Cape Town - Before and after the November international window, things were looking rosy for the Bulls, and now they find themselves at a crossroad that could define their season in tonight’s United Rugby Championship (URC) clash against the Dragons in Newport (kick-off 9.35pm).
After disappointing away defeats to Glasgow and Munster, the Pretoria side got back on track with victories over Benetton, the Sharks, the Ospreys, Cardiff and Lyon – with a ‘B-team’ – and the five-match winning streak left coach Jake White purring.
Now, three losses on the trot to Exeter, the Stormers and the Sharks has dampened the mood at Loftus Versfeld, and this week’s trip to Newport would not have helped matters either – it’s no wonder White has picked up a cold that prevented him from attending the team announcement press conference yesterday.
But if ever the Bulls have an opportunity to turn things around, then this game is it.
The Dragons have not won any of their last six fixtures – with five defeats and a draw.
The Bulls, despite slipping from a 13-9 lead to a 47-20 loss to the powerful Sharks last Saturday, do have the ingredients to find their mojo once more in the Welsh valleys.
White made some necessary daring moves with his team selection, reinstating Kurt-Lee Arendse to fullback in place of Johan Goosen, finally picking Wandisile Simelane in his preferred outsidecentre position and recalling Zak Burger at scrumhalf.
He could have gone further by bringing the dynamic Nizaam Carr into the loose-trio, but stuck with Elrigh Louw, Cyle Brink and Marco van Staden instead.
Gerhard Steenekamp has been tasked with adding some grunt to the scrum that battled against the Sharks.
A man familiar with the Dragons is Bulls scrum consultant Werner Kruger, who played over 120 games for the Scarlets over five years before retiring in 2021, and he believes that the Bulls need to box smartly at Rodney Parade.
“The biggest thing in Europe, especially at this time of the year, is managing the weather conditions – making sure that we are in the kicking battle and that we take control of the territory.
“That would put us in the right position of the pitch, and we just have to execute and manage those opportunities the best,” the former Springbok tighthead prop said yesterday.
“It’s probably not so much the mindshift, but it’s about managing the game correctly. We want to play and we don’t want to go away from that, but especially in weather conditions – it is likely to be windy and wet on Friday night – it’s managing that and playing in the right areas of the field to have a go.
“In weather like that, you are not likely to take chances in your own 22, but if you are on the right side of the pitch and the ball in your hand, you can have a go.”
That’s all good and well, but the Bulls can’t afford to give away several penalties and yellow cards again, like they did against the Sharks last week.
“Let’s be honest: we weren’t at our best against the Sharks. We didn’t execute the plan that we wanted to, and we weren’t physical enough – all of that just caused us to be under immense pressure,” Kruger said.
“If we get the controllables (sorted out) … Pitch up with the right, good intent, good physicality, and then our game drivers take control of the kicking battle and get us into the right areas of the field, then a lot of that (leadership issues) would take care of itself.”